Monday, September 13, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Seventh Seal" (1957)

The name Ingmar Bergman is like a dividing line in the cinematic landscape. To some, he is synonymous with ambitious foreign filmmaking -- movies at their highest plane of existence, unabashedly striving for art rather than entertainment.

To others, though, the Swede epitomizes the self-serving, "artsy" side of movies -- films that are made by, about and for those who consider themselves the cultural elite.

I trend much closer to the former side when it comes to Bergman, though I'll confess that after sitting through a whole slew of Bergman for a class on him at NYU, I developed a shorthand for mockery: Characters kneeling while facing the camera as they gaze upward slightly in the distance while contemplating the remoteness of God.

The remoteness of God is very much the central theme of "The Seventh Seal," perhaps the best-known of Bergman's films. Rather than being dull and self-important, though, the film is an exhilarating if allegorical look at the struggle between faith and reason.

Being away from Bergman for a long time, I was reminded how playful the great Swede could be. This child-like quality is represented in the characters of Jof and his wife, traveling actors who have a baby boy. Jof (Nils Poppe) plays a fool and mostly behaves like one, too, but has a spiritual purity that allows him to see heaven-sent visions. His wife Mia (Bergman favorite Bibi Andersson) adores Jof, but dismisses his stories -- such as seeing the Virign Mary teaching the Child to walk -- as nonsense.

In contrast to the unburdened acrobat, Antonius Block struggles to find God in his heart. A nobleman and a knight who has just returned from the Crusades to find his homeland infested with the Black Death, Block (Max von Sydow) has seen the worst that humanity has to offer. Finding no redeeming value upon the earth, he has little faith that something better awaits in Heaven.

Block's squire is Jöns, a cynical rapscallion who delights in upsetting his master's delicate sensibilities with his bawdy songs and behavior. He's played by Gunnar Björnstrand, who starred in many Bergman films.

Jöns has a horrible scar running from the crown of his head to his eyebrow, putting a strange unnatural part in his close-cropped hair, but seems ready to resume his old life if given the chance. While the squire bears the physical mark of 10 years at war in the Holy Land, his knight is a beautiful, almost angelic presence with a halo of white hair. But his soul has been indelibly etched.

The framing story is a game of chess played between Block and Death himself (Bengt Ekerot). The reaper has come to claim Block's life, but is amused by the knight's challenge to let him live as long as their game goes on. Block quickly gains the upper hand in their game, but Death disguises himself as a priest and hears the knight's confession, in which he reveals his strategy. From there, it is only a matter of time until Death prevails.

Block takes Jof and his family under his protection, not realizing he has brought his doom upon them as well. Later, though, he distracts Death long enough to let them make their escape.

The films ends with one of Jof's visions, the iconic image of Death leading Block and his party away on a far hillside in a forced dance of death. (Interestingly, crew members stood in for the real actors in that long shot, since Bergman captured it spontaneously at the end of a long day of shooting.)

For me the most affecting sequence of "The Seventh Seal" is when a group of flagellants wander into town, whipping and tearing at each other's flesh in the name of God. It stops the movie dead cold, but it's meant to, as we are presented with a stark depiction of the horrors committed in the name of religion. (The Flagellants were a very real and briefly popular movement in the Middle Ages.)

Block and Jöns also encounter a young girl who's been convicted of being a witch and sentenced to burn at the stake. The knight talks to her to see if she truly has had congress with Satan -- if he can have substantive proof of God's negative reflection, that would at least serve as something to bolster his own faith. But he looks in her eyes and sees only terror at her fate.

Jöns contemplates killing the mercenaries hired to carry out her execution, but Block appears willing to let matters take their course. He does, however, take steps to ease her suffering.

The title, of course, refers to the Book of Revelations, foretelling the end of mankind. The seventh seal is opened, followed by a period of silence before God lets fall his Final Judgment. "The Seventh Seal" is a film not about the end of time, but the silence between man and God.

4 stars out of four

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